YMCA breaks ground on new $30M facility in Cascade


The Mary Free Bed YMCA will be part of a 36-acre campus that allows easy access to every space and activity for able-bodied and disabled persons. Courtesy Mary Free Bed YMCA

When all is said and done, next fall West Michigan will be home to a new YMCA unlike any other in the country.

Ground broke in September to begin work on what will be known as Mary Free Bed YMCA, a new $30 million facility and campus coming to 5500 Burton St. SE in Cascade Township.

The new 116,200-square-foot, LEED-certified building, which will be the crown jewel of a 36-acre campus, is being hailed as the first-ever YMCA to fully feature “universal design,” allowing easy access to every space and activity for both able-bodied and disabled persons, particularly those using wheelchairs.

As part of the commemoration of the 125th anniversary of the Grand Rapids-based Mary Free Bed Guild, the guild has invested heavily in the new YMCA, which is being constructed by Grand Rapids-based Rockford Construction. Another Grand Rapids company, Progressive AE, is serving as the project’s architect.

“We are incredibly grateful to members of the Mary Free Bed Guild for both their generous monetary support and the true collaboration they have demonstrated as we have worked together for the past three years to make this shared vision a reality,” said Ron Nelson, president and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids.

“They have displayed incredible patience and unwavering support as the Y worked through the lengthy process of locating and securing the right property to house this first-of-its-kind project. We are absolutely thrilled to finally be breaking ground on this project and publicly announcing the Mary Free Bed Guild as our partner.”

The new Y will house an accessible health and wellness facility that will feature an indoor fitness area and track, sports courts, fitness classrooms for group activities and an indoor aquatics center.

The rest of the campus will feature an outdoor complex that includes sports fields, tennis courts, a playground, a wheelchair softball field, an activity trail, an on-site community garden and a farm-to-table program.

The new Y also will serve as headquarters for the Carol Van Andel Healthy Living Center, which will act as an incubator for education programs about obesity, nourishment and farming.

The entire campus is being designed using the principles of universal design, which has a center at North Carolina State University. The design is intended to allow those with temporary and permanent disabilities to remain independent and functional. This includes features such as wheelchair-comfortable turf for the softball field.

“Universal design evolved from accessible design, a design process that addresses the needs of people with disabilities. Universal design extends this concept further, recognizing the presence of a wide spectrum of human abilities and needs,” according to the Mary Free Bed YMCA website, grymca.org/mary-free-bed/overview.

“Architects and planners are designing for an aging population, special needs children, those with temporary sports injuries, those recovering from medical procedures, those with muscular skeletal diseases, and those with hearing and sight challenges,” the website says.

The Mary Free Bed Guild has worked closely with the YMCA for many years to develop a partnership that will greatly benefit both the guild’s patients and the entire community, said Kim Ridings, president of the guild.

“Our patients will come here for recreational therapy. Our Wheelchair & Adaptive Sports Program, which serves approximately 700 athletes every year, will call this home,” Ridings said.

“But just as important, West Michigan residents with disabilities will be able to exercise and enjoy sports without restrictions found in conventionally designed facilities. We’re thrilled about the many opportunities for people of all abilities at the Mary Free Bed YMCA.”

The idea for the new YMCA was born after several years of searching for a space to replace the 35-year old Southeast Family YMCA, 730 Forest Hill Ave. SE. After plans fell through to expand in Grand Rapids Township, the decision was made to build a new Y on the vacant parcel of land at the corner of Burton Street and Kraft Avenue.

“To say this new facility will be a significant upgrade to the current one is an understatement,” Nelson said.

“It will be like no other YMCA in the country and will stand as a model for collaboration and inclusion — one of the Y’s core values — for others to follow.”

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